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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

Book cover: Milan since the Miracle: City, Culture and Identity

Author's response


Milan since the Miracle: City, Culture and Identity

John Foot
Berg, Oxford, 2001
ISBN-13: 978-1-85-973550-3; 192 pages, price £14.99

Anna Cento Bull

University of Bath

First of all I would like to thank Anna Bull for her detailed, wide-ranging and very useful review of my book, which also represents a stimulating call for deeper research on this complicated city. I was pleased with her interpretation of what I was trying to do with the volume, which corresponds largely with my real intentions, and with the ways in which she felt Milan was evoked by the book. I am also gratified that the multi-disciplinary nature of the book - crucial to any historical analysis of the city, in my opinion - does not appear to deflect from the main thrust of the volume. I will deal with Bull-s critical points about the book in the order in which they appear in the review:

1. Voices, Resistance and the analysis of Culture.

Here I broadly agree with Anna Bull-s points concerning the resistance to changes in cultural forms and images. However, I have two caveats to oppose to her points. Firstly, the book does contain aspects of resistance to change, such as with the accounts of the opposition to de-industrialisation, or with the description of the culture surrounding the tangentopoli scandals, or the possible role of counter-cultures linked to various phases of immigration. Secondly, I think one of the points of the book, and a key feature of Milan, is the way in which the city has always been able to embrace and promote social change, instead of remaining linked to outdated models of development. This capacity to adapt and re-invent itself, in Milan-s case through fashion and design linked to centuries of experience in textile and furniture manufacture, allowed the city to move fairly smoothly from an industrial to a -post-industrial- economy. Thus, the very flexibility of Milan-s cultural norms were a key factor in this transition which did not happen in other Italian industrial cities to the same extent - in places such as Turin and Genoa. I hint at possible future resistance to images imposed from above in the chapter on immigration and in the last section of the book, but Bull is right to note my pessimism.

2. The omission of aspects of city life and culture

Here, again, I largely agree with Anna Bull-s comments. In fact, in the case of Radio Popolare, I am at something of a loss to explain the omission, which Bull is quite correct to highlight. I have listened to Radio Popolare on an almost daily basis for the last ten years and it was probably this very familiarity which led to the station-s absence from Milan since the Miracle. Bull-s points about the originality and force of this radio station, and the cultural networks it represents and links up, are absolutely right, although I would also argue that the Milan-based aspects of Radio Popolare have been weakened by its very success - its emergence at the centre of a national network of independent radio stations sharing programmes, news bulletins and reporters.

For music, Bull is again correct, although I do not think that popular music can be said to have played the same powerful role as cinema or television in the city-s development or within the context of cultural and social change and especially in terms of changes in images, so important to my book. Nonetheless, the artists she mentions are important figures in Milanese post-war history (Gaber and Jannacci) and, one might add, the emergence of Italy-s most famous and (still) popular rock and roll singer from the Milanese periphery in the 1950s - Adriano Celentano - who dedicated many of his songs to Milan, such as Il ragazzo di Via Gluck - was a significant cultural event for the post-war history of this city. Here, there is certainly space for further research and integration with the other cultural forms analysed in the book. It may also be that the flowering of comedy in contemporary Milan (through the Zelig club, Paolo Rossi and the Gialappa-s Band, amongst others) took up the tradition laid down by the cabaret/singers of the 1950s and 1960s.

Finally, for theatre, similar conclusions can be drawn. Theatre is not excluded altogether (Both Fo and the Piccolo Teatro are cited in the book) but it is certainly not analysed in detail. The explanation for this (and perhaps for music as well) lies in my attention to the history of daily, home-based and work-based life, and to images of the city. Both of these areas are more difficult to link to theatre and music than they are to cinema and television. My attention to debates over mass cultural change led, naturally, to a concentration on these classic mass cultural forms, at the expense of others. I was interested in the ways in which cultural forms interacted with social and cultural change, and, in particular urban change - particularly on Milan-s urban periphery.

3. 1968 as a -blip-

I still maintain that the individualism and familism of the 1980s and 1990s had deep roots in the time of the miracle, but this does not mean that the road between the 1950s and 1990s was a linear one, nor that everybody was a familist then, and everyone is a familist now. My point about 1968 possibly being something of a -blip- in Milan-s history was as much an attempt to bring out these issues as to lay down a clear argument one way or another. For me, -Berlusconi-, ideologically, was born in the Milan of the 1950s - an important moment for Milan and for Italy as a whole. Perhaps, here, I am more Pasolinian than I would like to be given my critique of Pasolini-s analysis of society in chapter one of the book. I do have some sympathy with Pasolini-s depiction of 1968 not as a revolt against consumer society but as a mass attempt to conform to that society - to be admitted to its glittering prizes.

4. The Old Ruling Class

In response to Bull-s series of questions concerning this issue, most of the old, industrial, Milanese bourgeoisie has indeed disappeared, both economically and politically, While in the 1950s and 1960s, enlightened industrialists like Bassetti took a keen and active interest in the political management of the city, in the 1980s and 1990s these figures had withdrawn from public life and were busy dismantling their factories across Milan. Berlusconi in some ways represents a bridge between some sections of the old bourgeoisie (linked to construction) and the new ruling class dedicated to post-industrial activities. One exception to this is the Pirelli group, who have indeed closed most of their activities in the city but remain a key part of the power structure in the city. Another exception are the Moratti family, who have always had a strong cultural role in Milan, partly linked to the Inter football club. No new images were produced by the old bourgeoisie as it disappeared, marginalised by the rapid economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s and, to some extent, by the breakdown in political and clientelistic alliances brought about by the Tangentopoli scandals. Bull is correct to note my neglect of the banking system, although I think that the Banco Ambrosiana scandal had far more of an impact in Rome than in did in Milan. The Socialist Party, it should be remembered, was always important in post-war Milan, and the first post-war non-social democratic Mayor was only appointed in 1993. I agree about the long-term nature of political and financial corruption in the city, and some of these features are brought out in chapter 7. One of the main arguments of that chapter is the very dislocation between image and reality in Milan. Thus, Milan was Tangentopoli - a city built on systematic and scientific political and economic illegality and corruption - well before -Tangentopoli- was discovered. Hence, I do not accept the criticism that the book claims that images of the city and its socio-economic transformation proceeded in unison. Milano da bere hid the dark, corrupt side of Milan, but also reflected deep trends in Milanese society. Images are of course extremely subjective and complicated and differ across time and space.

April 2002

Original review

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